I was a teenager the first time I experienced the meaning of advent.
My meaning-making didn’t happen at church but at home as I hid in my room, away from my family, from their fighting and screaming. I was angry—I didn’t understand why we couldn’t pull ourselves together well enough to have one decent Christmas. I was angry that we seemed to ruin everything good.
As I sat on the floor of my room, hugging my knees to my chest, probably crying, I had a sudden salvific thought: this is Christmas, this overwhelming darkness, this despair that I don’t think I can handle for a moment longer. Or I saw that Christmas is, at its core, about a long-awaited light in the darkness.*
While my faith background had informed this thought, it was not necessarily tied to Jesus or the story of his birth. I simply saw or experienced belief that there was light even in my hopelessness—and that, somehow, we were all going to be okay. I believed it because I felt it—deeply. That is how I have always received truth: from within.
I remember reflecting on it again the last time I went home for Christmas, four years ago, in the middle of all the pre-election drama (but it wasn’t a drama—it was real life). Over the course of the week, I engaged in multiple arguments with family members who seemed to have temporarily—of course, I see now that it wasn’t temporary—forgotten all of their values. I can see now, too, that I was wrong about their values. They were wrong about their values.
My brother noticed the commotion and found me in an attempt to do his favorite thing: make peace. He’s a sensitive person, usually, and he likes to try to fix things, to diffuse tension, but it doesn’t always work. Somehow, and I don’t know how, our conversation devolved—and I was running out the front door as he shouted after me, with great sincerity, that marriage is between a man and a woman.
I walked the streets of the neighborhood where my aunt and uncle had rented a condo for the week, numbly holding the beer I had opened just before he confronted me, until my only affirming family member, my cousin, came and picked me up.
The next day, in an attempt to diffuse the tension within myself, I wrote, over and over, things like: there is light in this darkness—this darkness in me, in him, in all of us—and we are all going to be okay. But that was before the 2016 election, my birthday, the night that it was immediately clear that a lot of people, the most vulnerable people, were not going to be okay.
Now, three years later, it is even harder to see reason for hope; I have access to the darkness, but where is the light? I know that the impeachment and the Christianity Today article calling for Trump’s removal were experienced as bits of light for some, and I don’t want to take that away, so I’ll just say that I can’t feel it. I feel overwhelmed. It is still devastating to me that Evangelicals, including my family, have given themselves to this person so completely. It is devastating to see what was always behind the curtain; it is my understanding that Evangelicalism has not been changed or corrupted but exposed.
As our faux-democracy continues to unravel, as fascism grows stronger each day (I could go on), the only hope I have been able to find lies in my “theology,” or my belief that we are, in some real sense, all we have. The light I am waiting for is within—you and me. Several years ago, after I shared some version of the above advent story in a reflection paper, my professor responded with the suggestion that I am “a Christmas story in and of myself.”
I am holding this—my belief that we are all potentially Christmas stories in this sense, that we all have the ability to make the choices available to us to move toward goodness and to resist evil, “to shine light in darkness”—in tension with this still-overwhelming and seemingly inescapable darkness. And it strikes me, again, that this tension is the meaning of Christmas.
*Note: Language of light and darkness is more than worthy of critique. I used it here because this is the language that is commonly used and the language I used at the time; because as a sort-of-not-really Quaker, I have an affinity for L/light language; and mostly because I have yet to come up with alternative language. I am very open to suggestions.